Defining Pantomime for Language Evolution Research 2018-05-10آ  Deï¬پning Pantomime for Language Evolution

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  • Defining Pantomime for Language Evolution Research

    Przemysław _Zywiczyński1 • Sławomir Wacewicz1 • Marta Sibierska1

    Published online: 27 August 2016

    � The Author(s) 2016. This article is published with open access at

    Abstract Although pantomimic scenarios recur in the

    most important historical as well as current accounts of

    language origins, a serious problem is the lack of a com-

    monly accepted definition of ‘‘pantomime’’. We scrutinise

    several areas of study, from theatre studies to semiotics to

    primatology, pointing to the differences in use that may

    give rise to misunderstandings, and working towards a set

    of definitional criteria of ‘‘pantomime’’ specifically useful

    for language evolution research. We arrive at a definition

    of pantomime as a communication mode that is mimetic;

    non-conventional and motivated; multimodal (primarily

    visual); improvised; using the whole body rather than

    exclusively manual; holistic; communicatively complex

    and self-sufficient; semantically complex; displaced, open-

    ended and universal. So conceived, ‘‘pantomime’’ is a near

    synonym of ‘‘bodily-mimetic communication’’ as envis-

    aged by Donald and Zlatev. On a wider plane, our work

    may help organise some of the terminology and discussion

    in language evolution, e.g. by drawing a clear distinction

    between gestural and pantomimic scenarios or by speci-

    fying the relation between pantomimic and multimodal


    Keywords Pantomime � Mime � Gesture � Mimesis � Multimodality � Language origin � Language evolution

    1 Introduction

    The rise of interest in the so-called pantomimic scenarios

    of language origins is evident in the works of several of the

    most influential scholars in this field, including Arbib

    (2005, 2008, 2009, 2012), Tomasello (2008), or the

    mimesis theorists Donald (1991, 2001) and Zlatev (2008)

    (cf. Cartmill and Goldin-Meadow 2012; McNeill 2013, for

    opposing views). The capacity of pantomime to represent

    and communicate relatively complex content without

    relying on pre-established meaning conventions, together

    with its apparent naturalness and universality, makes pan-

    tomime particularly noteworthy in the context of language

    evolution research. However, the proper classification and

    evaluation of the ‘‘pantomimic’’ models of language ori-

    gins depend as much on their fit with available multidis-

    ciplinary evidence (cf. Wacewicz and _Zywiczyński 2015),

    as on proper definitional groundwork. The underlying

    problem here is that the very notion of pantomime has not

    so far been analysed in great theoretical and empirical

    detail, and is used across a range of disciplines in ways that

    are considerably diverse and more intuitive than system-

    atic. That this is so is even testified by researchers directly

    concerned with pantomime, such as McNeill, who at one

    point acknowledges ‘‘the lack of definition of pantomime’’

    (2005: 6). What is required is a systematic and nuanced

    definition of pantomime and a better understanding of the

    mechanisms underlying its acquisition and cognitive


    Here, we aim at achieving this first, terminological-

    conceptual, goal. We take a look at how the notion of

    pantomime functions across a variety of fields, from theatre

    studies or semiotics to primatology—to highlight the sim-

    ilarities but especially the areas of possible

    & Sławomir Wacewicz

    1 Department of English, Center for Language Evolution

    Studies CLES, Nicolaus Copernicus University, ul.

    Władysława Bojarskiego 1, 87-100 Toruń, Poland


    Topoi (2018) 37:307–318

  • misunderstanding. Then, we arrive at a notion of pan-

    tomime that grows out of bodily mimesis (Donald 1991;

    Zlatev 2014), and can be defined as communication mode

    that is mimetic (volitional and representational); non-con-

    ventional and motivated; multimodal but primarily visual;

    improvised; using the whole body and the surrounding

    space rather than exclusively manual and stationary;

    holistic and non-segmental; communicatively complex and

    self-sufficient; semantically complex; displaced, open-

    ended and universal. Interestingly, the processing of pan-

    tomime so defined requires advanced cognitive capacities

    (e.g. triadic mimesis or perspective taking), a key feature

    that we do not have the resources to treat fully here.

    2 ‘‘Pantomime’’ Across the Disciplines

    2.1 Theatre Studies

    ‘‘Pantomime’’ is most often translated as ‘‘an imitator of

    all/everything’’. The word has its roots in the theatrical

    tradition, and specifically originates from the Latin (ulti-

    mately Greek) panto-, meaning ‘‘all’’, and mimos,1 refer-

    ring to a ‘‘nonspeaking’’ performer who took on all the

    roles in a play and acted them out relying on masks, props

    and rhythmic movement.2 In Antiquity, this was synony-

    mous with the performance of ‘‘a dancer’’ (cf. Slater 1994),

    who illustrated the tragic myths. Calling for great athletic

    ability, it resembled sports more than arts: it involved

    boxing and wrestling moves, high jumping, or somer-

    saults (wasting the performers’ energy, cf. Barba 1995:

    15). Later on, this athletic repertoire of pantomimi was

    widened, as pantomime became an increasingly comical

    form, relying on mannerisms and exaggerations, which

    required the utmost precision of facial expression and

    gesturing (cf. Slater 1994).

    In theatre studies, pantomime has thus been conceived

    of as a form of acting with the body; however, ideologi-

    cally, it is not ‘‘a theatre where the actor does not speak, [it]

    is theatre where the actor’s body does speak’’ (Lecoq in

    Peacock 2007: 217). In this sense, pantomime is a means of

    expression rather than a given—conventionalised—the-

    atrical form. Lecoq, one of the most influential mime

    theorists and teachers, offered something of a prescriptive

    definition of thus understood pantomime, which, in his

    opinion, should be based on ‘‘corporal impression’’ and

    involve only ‘‘primal vocal sounds’’, being a ‘‘silent

    portrayal of real-life physical activity’’ (Lecoq in Peacock

    2007: 217). Such an approach seems close to Decroux’s

    corporeal mime or Stanislavsky’s form of physical theatre,

    in which the movements of the performer should arise

    ‘‘genuinely’’ or ‘‘organically’’ in the course of improvisa-

    tion (cf. Fleshman 2012: 206, Toporkov 2004: 159). It is

    worth noting that in these contexts, pantomime—though

    understood primarily as a dramatic form—is most often

    defined simply as ‘‘communicating through the use of

    gesture and movement rather than words’’, relying on ‘‘the

    visual and tactile channels of expression’’ (Peterson Royce

    1992: 191).

    Pantomime, understood as a form of a performance, has

    in general acquired a status of popular entertainment,3 and

    thus the term has been used rather reluctantly by theatre

    practitioners such as Stanislavsky or Grotowski, even

    though it is very close to what they called ‘‘physical

    actions’’ (cf. Spatz 2015: 139). The popular character of

    pantomime is also reflected in the interest that anthropo-

    logical, ethnological and folklore studies take in the sub-

    ject. In Bauman’s edited volume on folk and popular

    entertainment forms, ‘‘mime’’ is listed alongside gossip,

    folktale, oral poetry, and ritual (1992). It is also present in

    almost every intra-cultural analysis of folklore of a given

    group or place: from Asia (e.g. Goonatilleka 1970, Lopez

    2006), to Africa (Kerr 2005), to the Americas (Brunvand

    1968). In Africa, for instance, mime has often been a way

    of combining the pre-colonial indigenous heritage of par-

    ticular regions, usually in the form of original ritualistic

    dance, with parodying the colonial culture (Kerr 1995:

    59–60). One of the most interesting forms is ‘‘militaristic

    mime’’. Kerr describes the Beni dance, which can be read

    as a parody of an army parade: the dancers, dressed in

    semi-military outfits, march in columns and mirror the

    behaviour of the European colonisers, using props that

    stand for rifles or batons (1995: 60). Another example is the

    Chama dance, in which the participants imitate an

    indigenous Arab sword combat, using sticks as props

    (1995: 60). These forms have a clear resemblance to the

    performances of the pantomimi of Ancient Greece and

    Rome: in one way or another they refer to fighting and

    require the military precision of movement.